George Takei has been a leading advocate for LGBT rights since he announced to the world he was a gay man in 2005. Best known for his role playing Starship Enterprise helmsman Hikaru Sulu in the beloved “Star Trek” TV series and through six films, Takei reports he’s more in demand than ever after kicking open the closet door.
Variety spoke with the actor in the weeks leading up to the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on Friday that legalizes gay marriage nationwide. At the time, Takei, who is married to Brad Altman, said he was “optimistic” the court would endorse same-sex couples’ right to wed. He also talked about his years in the closet and the reaction “Star Trek” fans had to the news he was a gay man.
Were you hesitant to come out of the closet?
George Takei: I was closeted most of my adult life and most of my career, because I wanted to work passionately and I loved acting, and I knew I could’t have that if I was out. When I was a teenager, the biggest heartthrob was Tab Hunter. He was in every movie out of Warner Bros. until he was exposed as gay and his career faded. That was an object lesson. I knew I must protect my sexual orientation.
When I came out, I was 68 and I was totally prepared for my career to recede when I spoke to the press for the first time. What happened after that blew me away. I started getting more offers. My career blossomed. I got more guest shots as gay George Takei than ever, and I got an offer from Howard Stern to be his official announcer.
How did “Star Trek” fans react to the news you were gay?
“Star Trek” fans totally accepted my sexual orientation. There are a great number of LGBT people across “Star Trek” fandom. The show always appealed to people that were different — the geeks and the nerds, and the people who felt they were not quite a part of society, sometimes because they may have been gay or lesbian.
“Star Trek” is about acceptance and the strength of the Starship Enterprise is that it embraces diversity in all its forms.
Did your “Star Trek” co-stars know you were gay?
I never made a statement, but when you’re working on a series like “Star Trek,” at the end of the week you have cast wrap parties. The beers are rolled out and the pizza is brought in. The men would bring wives and the women would bring husbands, and I’d bring a buddy. Show business people are sophisticated. They knew I was gay and they liked me and were supportive of me, but they didn’t make a big thing of it because they knew at the time it could be destructive for me.
I knew they knew because one day after getting into makeup, I was standing around the coffee urn chitchatting with Walter Koenig [Pavel Chekov] and he gestured for me to turn around. Behind me there was this extra coming in, a drop dead gorgeous guy wearing a tight Star Fleet uniform. My heart stopped, my jaw dropped, and I turned back around and Walter was grinning and he gave me a wink. He was helping me out and he didn’t want me to miss this gorgeous guy, because he was my friend.
How have society’s attitudes changed in the years since you came out?
There’s been so much progress. When Brad and I got married in 2008, it got a lot of attention. And all the attention was over the fact that we were two men, but people were hardly conscious of the fact that we were entering into an interracial marriage. That’s wonderful, because it was only 50 years ago with Loving v. Virginia that interracial marriages were made legal.
I’m hopeful that in 50 or more years, the fact that two men or two women or somebody who was a man marries another woman or a man as a woman, will be as unremarkable as interracial marriages are today.
What does the enormous shifts in attitudes in favor of gay rights and gay marriage say about the health of our democracy?
As a child I was incarcerated for being Japanese American. It was one of the most egregious violations of civil liberties in history, but American citizens during World War II got swept up in this anti-Japanese hysteria.
Later as a teenager, I’d read about our democracy and I couldn’t relate to it because I remembered my childhood imprisonment. I had to have my mind changed about American democracy by my father. He said that our democracy is only as great as its people can be, but it’s also as fallible as its people. He described it as a work in progress.
The arc of our history is toward more equality being expanded to more and more people. When our nation was founded, women had no rights, black people had no rights. Because there were determined women and fair-minded men, women are running for public office and equality has been expanded. We have African-Americans in the halls of Congress and in the White House. That’s the arc that LGBT people are experiencing, towards that day when we’re recognized as full-class citizens who have all the rights we’re entitled to as Americans.